Solitude and Sangha

“Solitude is precious.” “Solitude is peaceful and quiet…calm.” “Solitude is a place of wisdom…collectedness…sobriety…refuge.” “Solitude is hard to find in prison.”

With these reflections, we began our monthly Sangha* gathering this past Saturday at the Northern NH Correctional Facility for Men in Berlin, NH. The nine men sharing their thoughts had been encouraged to sit with and consider the felt-sense of “solitude” over this past month as the word is used in verse 205 in the Dhammapada:

Tasting the flavor of solitude
And the nectar of peace,
Those that drink the joy
that is the essence of  reality
abide free from evil.

In their pared down lives, solitary confinement is probably the strongest punishment held out against these men for any wrongs they may commit while incarcerated, a greater isolation within the already isolating framework of the prison experience itself. Many of the men in the group have tasted this punishment, referred to as “the shoe”; but we all knew we were talking about something else in our discussion on Saturday, something other than being cast out of the community.

One of the Valley Insight volunteers present in the group brought up the feeling of loneliness that can be experienced as an aspect of solitude. It has the feeling of being separate, alone. In this regard we discussed the felt-sense of disconnection and of connection and their relation to suffering and freedom. The Tibetan Buddhist’s define the complexity of emotion within a spectrum that goes from the “neurotic pattern” to the “realized wisdom.” Perhaps loneliness is the neurotic pattern of solitude, which arises when conditioned by self-centeredness and/or shame, whereas the solitude that is fed by compassion and wise understanding gives rise to a deep peace and boundless freedom.

The prison Sangha in Berlin, which is a recognized Buddhist practice and study group at the facility under the auspices of the chaplain, has been meeting for over seven and half years. Currently three of us from the Valley Insight Community – myself, Barbara Woodard and Landon Hall — travel two and half hours each way every month to enable the gathering. A fairly recent revision of prison rules does not allow the men to gather as a formal group without outside leadership. Some of the men attending – anywhere from 9 to 14 each month – have been coming for many years. Others come for several years and then move into the process of release or are transferred to other facilities. The monthly meetings and the felt-sense of Sangha (community) that continues as the men see one another during the month is immensely important to them. It helps foster the internal conditions that support the realized wisdom aspect of solitude along with a growing sense of connection to others and to their own goodness.

From a Buddhist perspective a Sangha is a group of people working wisely and kindly together in the direction of freedom, i.e. in the creation of less suffering in their lives and in the lives of others. Once, when his main attendant Ananda made the statement that having noble friends was perhaps half of the holy life, the Buddha purportedly said, “Say not so, Ananda, having noble friends in the Dhamma is the whole of the spiritual life.”

The word in the Pali language for spiritual friend is “Kalyana-Mitta,” one who wishes for and works for our well-being. This prison Sangha is a part of the larger Sangha/Kalyana-Mitta that is Valley Insight Meditation Society, in much the same way that the Monday night, Wednesday evening, Thursday morning and Sunday groups are. We often remind the men of this relationship, and it enhances their sense of connection to a larger group that is committed to the same spiritual path. In reflecting on ways to strengthen this sense of a shared journey and thereby, wise solitude; we have had the idea of having members of Valley Insight send our Buddha note cards to the men. We have 12 designs available. Perhaps over the course of a 12- week period (or longer) each man could receive one of each with a brief note.

This would not entail becoming an ongoing correspondent with any of the men. We have a separate part of our prison program that is just that. (If you are interested in knowing more about this please contact me.) Instead, this card-sending effort would be simply a one-time outreach with a friendly note letting them know that there are Sangha members (Kalyana-Mittas) thinking of them and wishing them well. The men are allowed only a limited amount of books and material, but they are able to receive unlimited correspondence. A brief note along with the card’s image of and verse from the Buddha will be a bright spot.

As the full logistics of this “card shower” are in the process of being worked out, we will be bringing cards to each of our regular groups over the next few weeks along with a list of men who have given us permission to send them cards. This will get things started. The return address on the card will be the Valley Insight post office box. If you’d like to be involved but don’t come regularly to a group, you could contact me directly.

The three of us who currently visit in the prison once a month and those who have gone in the past often reflect upon importance of the prison group in our own practice and understanding. We have developed a deep sense of connecting with these spiritual friends. They are people who are wise and intentional in their thoughts and actions and who are transforming before our eyes. There is a mutual appreciation and respect; and there is joy and laughter as we consider profound subjects and practice together in silence. This is, of course, true throughout the Valley Insight Sangha, isn’t it?

And so, I offer to each of us, those in prison and that not in prison, a deep bow of gratitude and the familiar invitation to “keep calmly and kindly knowing change” together.

Peace and all best wishes as the season changes and the year turns over,

Doreen

* From a Buddhist perspective a Sangha is a group of people working wisely and kindly together in the direction of freedom, i.e. in the creation of less suffering in their lives and in the lives of others.

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